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He can't duck blame
A Times Editorial
Published January 4, 2008
Just before Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan voted to fire the county attorney for her role in a botched county land deal, he said this to her: "When the story begins to change, I begin to get worried." It is the public that ought to be worried now, because Duncan's story about his role in the controversial purchase of elected Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land just keeps changing.
During months of news coverage about the purchase, which resulted in a critical grand jury report and the departures of two high-ranking county officials, Duncan painted himself as relatively uninvolved. He pointed the finger at then-County Attorney Susan Churuti, then-County Administrator Steve Spratt and other county staff members for rushing the process or using poor judgment.
Pinellas hurriedly bought Smith's vacant, flood-prone parcel in June after Smith claimed it had been "devastated" by county maintenance of a creek there. The county paid Smith $225,000 for the 1.5 acres, nearly four times the value Smith's own office assigned to the parcel for tax purposes.
In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board in September, Duncan spent more than an hour explaining his role, referring to notes and frequently attaching dates to his recollections.
Yet it is now apparent that either Duncan's recollections were astonishingly faulty or he was rewriting history. Times staff writers Jonathan Abel and Will Van Sant used phone records and interviews to construct the time line that led to the Smith purchase and found Duncan at the center, not the periphery, of events. For example:
- Duncan had told the Times he first learned about Smith's complaints on March 16 when Smith called him. However, phone records confirm the conversation actually occurred March 2 and Duncan immediately called the county administrator to talk about it.
- Duncan claimed he did nothing to pressure the county staff to expedite the purchase of Smith's land. But he now acknowledges that he routinely asked the county administrator for status reports. And on March 30, while meeting with two county staffers on another flood-related matter, Duncan brought up Smith's claim and told them, "He's pretty upset, and we need to resolve it." Under the county charter, commissioners have no authority to direct staffers who report to the county administrator, as these two did. Duncan clearly was intent on seeing the Smith matter resolved expeditiously.
- Duncan told the editorial board that he learned of the county staff's decision to buy the Smith parcel only one week before the County Commission voted on the purchase contract on June 5. But Jim Smith says he ran into Duncan in a restaurant in early April and Duncan told him it looked like the county would be buying his land. Smith's version is bolstered by former County Attorney Churuti, who said the county decided April 2 to buy Smith's land and didn't pursue any other ways to resolve the dispute. It appears that the county made the decision to buy Smith's parcel two months before the County Commission vote and before any appraisals or negotiations had taken place. And Duncan knew it.
Duncan may wish he could blame someone else and steer clear of the Smith controversy, but the facts, not to mention his ever-shifting version of events, confirm the suspicion he was right in the thick of it.